A simple word with a complex meaning for musicians practicing their art. What does it mean to be practiced? When you are practicing, are you learning new material or reinforcing old material? How long should I practice?
Each musician has their own idea on what “practice” means to them and how they should handle practicing their instrument. The purpose of this article is to give you a list of several different ways that people practice and give you some insight as to what each one means, how it benefits the player, and suggestions on when to use them.
As discussed in previous articles , everyone learns differently and has their own preferences and experiences with practicing and learning. This list of practice methods is not intended to be used as a bible of how to practice, but instead to give musicians different ideas that they can try out and see if they like or benefit from.
This article will also discuss the concept of what you should focus on during your practice time based on these 3 popular practicing methods.
- Passive Practice
Passive practice is the easiest on your brain and muscles, and can be done without an instrument. This includes sitting back and listening to yourself play something on your instrument. The first instance of this would be playing through a piece of music that you are learning for the first time.
It is important to spend a majority of your practice time this way, but it should be left out when you are learning new material because Passive Practice does not force your muscles to do anything. If you learn by listening only, your fingers will get lazy and sloppy making it harder to play cleanly.
If you are a beginner or intermediate player, Passive Practice will help you tremendously by reinforcing the material that you have already learned. It is also helpful for warming up before practicing because it allows your muscles to ease into playing instead of jumping right into new material. At this stage in your development, I would not recommend doing more than 5-10 minutes of Passive Practice to start your warm-up.
The goal when practicing this way is to listen for things that you like and don’t like about your sound, technique, tone, etc. This will potentially lead to the realization of bad habits that you didn’t even know were there! You may want to focus on playing cleaner or playing more expressively, whatever the case may be there are several different things you will notice when listening passively.
- Active Practice
Active Practice is similar to Passive Practice in that you are playing music along with yourself or a backing track. The difference is that it requires your movement and input of notes.
This method of practicing is great for developing your technique, building speed , and exploring different ideas for improvisation. There are two main concepts associated with practicing this way.
The first of these is playing along to a metronome, which is a device that emits a beep at specific intervals that you set. This is useful for developing accuracy, speed , and even developing your ears . The goal is to strive for accuracy in your playing, meaning that every note sounds clean with no string noise or fret buzz.
The second concept is playing along with a backing track. A backing track contains the chord progressions and melodies to an entire song so that you can practice improvisation over it. These are available all over the internet and the quality varies, but to start out just finding something with simple chord changes is enough.
When practicing this way, you should always start playing slowly with a metronome or backing track then gradually build up speed. You will be surprised by how bad your technique is when you first start playing fast. This can be discouraging, but stick with it and really analyze what you are doing. If you are playing along with a metronome or backing track, try to play as accurately as possible for the entirety of the song. This means to play every note as clean as possible and to change positions as little as possible.
- Relative Pitch Ear Training
This is a great way to train your ear and perfect your intonation. You can find apps that will help you with this, but you should also try to do it by ear, meaning without the assistance of technology.
The first step is to know what intervals sound like. The easiest way to get started is by starting with the octave. Sing an “ah” sound and hold it until you feel like you can’t anymore. Now start on a low “ah” and go up to as high as you can without straining your voice. That’s an octave and it sounds pretty boring, but that’s where we’re starting. Practice this in all twelve keys and you will quickly become familiar with the intervals in your favorite scales.
Now that you know how to identify an octave, try recognizing thirds (sounds like the first two notes of “row, row, row your boat”) and fifths (first two notes of “When the Saints go Marching In”). You can learn to recognize anything if you work on it, but these are the two most important intervals for ear training. For simplicity’s sake, just start with octaves, thirds , and fifths .
Now that you know what all these intervals sound like, it’s time to put them into practice. This is a great way to work on your ear training and intonation because it forces you to actually listen, which is the key to all this. Start by playing an open fifth (start on the low note and play both notes) at a comfortable volume (not too loud, not too quiet). Sing the same note and try to match it exactly.
If you can’t quite do it, play a bit harder (or softer) next time. You will be surprised to find out how easy it is to make the note go sharp (higher than you are singing) or flat (lower than you are singing). You can make it easier by playing an octave with the same note instead of a fifth. If you have a hard time matching the octave exactly, try practicing this for a while to strengthen your ear. It’s a long process and you should expect it to take many months (or even years) to become good at it.
These three methods are the best ways to improve your skill as a musician. These will help you become more accurate, be able to play faster, and become a more versatile musician. These are the best ways to practice because they are the most helpful. They are also just interesting things to do when you have a free minute in class or when you’re standing in line somewhere. Use your spare time to improve yourself and be a better musician!